Sunday, May 18, 2008

The steppes are rockin'...!

This week I encountered two of the leading bands in Kazakhstan's current "world music" trend: Roksonaki and Urker. I'd been looking forward to meeting the members of Roksonaki ever since I heard about their U.S. tour this year, arranged by an American anthropologist (who is also now they record producer - yikes, maybe i should be asking her for a job!). You can read about it on their tour blog here.
Roksonaki was started in 1990 by Ruslan Kara [right], who tried to mesh together Kazakh traditional music with the sounds of American/European art rock music he had grown up listening to. He now writes most of the band's songs, plays guitar, and sings; the other two band members, Galymzhan Sekeyev [center] and Erlan Sabitov [left], play the Kazakh instruments kyl-kobyz and zhetigen, respectively. Their songs are all in Kazakh language and draw on a variety of themes, including a fairly strong leaning toward shamanistic sounds and texts. (Check out some of their recent work on their MySpace page here.) In fact, they told me about how several times during their U.S. tour, they performed a song that shamans apparently used to sing in order to bring rain - and that shortly after Roksonaki's performance of this song, either rain or snow soon followed (spooky).
I met with the band and their manager (and Ruslan's wife) Dina Amirova on a Friday afternoon. We sat outside the Academy of Sciences in central Almaty next to my favorite fountain (the zodiac one, remember?) and talked for almost an hour about the band. I really liked having input from both the band members and from Dina, who is also a musicologist and describes Roksonaki's music in a more analytical light. The band had also worn specially made shirts from their American tour for an impromptu photo shoot (by Dina) that they were planning to send to a radio station back in the U.S. where they had given an interview. By the way, just a bit of Kazakh cultural trivia: the symbol on Galymzhan's black t-shirt is a shangyrak - the centerpiece that is placed at the top of the traditional Kazakh yurt (ui) and signifies Kazakh familial ties and lineage. You see this symbol a lot in these parts - on fences and state buildings, in advertising, even on the Kyrgyz flag (since they were nomads too and very closely related to the Kazakhs).
On another interesting note - as we were saying goodbye, a few drops of rain started falling, and turned into a huge downpour that didn't stop until late that night! Apparently the rain gods are still listening to these guys...

The following Saturday, I headed to a huuuuuge new mall - the biggest in Almaty, and appropriately named MEGA (in capital letters) - to attend the presentation of Urker's new album, Tolghau (Melody). I've mentioned this band on the blog before, and I have known the lead singer, Aidos Sagat [right], since my last fieldwork stint in Almaty. Unlike Roksonaki, who prefer not to classify themselves, Urker describes its combination of traditional and modern music as "ethno-pop." Aidos writes most of the band's songs, and Nurlan Alban [center] writes the lyrics - so these two bands are actually doing very original stuff, which is remarkable in a city that is teeming with cover bands (albeit often very talented ones)! Aidos and Nurlan also share vocals, and Rustam Musin [left] plays lead guitar.
As part of the presentation, Urker gave an hour-long concert of new and old songs. A pretty large crowd gathered to hear them play (as will often happen in a busy mall, i guess) and people were singing and bouncing along with the older songs that they clearly recognized. As for me, their live performance was way better than anything I'd heard on their albums - they were rocking some of the songs pretty hard (unusual for them) and they clearly fed off of the energy of the crowd.
If you're interested, Urker has a pretty nice website (with an English version available), so check it!

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Multiculturalism in the "Land of 100 Nations"

Continuing the "international friendship" theme just a little longer, there's been a lot of multiculturalism going on around here lately. First off, after the TV spot I was asked to do a repeat performance at an "International Unity Day" related dinner event - a few of the people who participated in the TV taping were there, but a lot of other people and traditions were represented as well: Chechen and Azeri dancing; Russian, Tajik, and Uzbek pop singers; and a Turkmen folk singer. It was fun, and hey - free food! But when I played the kobyz this time, I was a little annoyed because nobody really paid attention (I think too much liquor had been consumed by that time).

A few days later was the actual holiday (May 1st) - they had a big concert outside the Palace of the Republic, where again lots of different "national" groups performed their "national" music and dance, wearing their "national" dress. And yes, all of this "national" spirit is a cultural holdover from Soviet times... Incidentally, this often becomes a frsutrating issue when people ask me to represent the U.S. by wearing American "national" dress (suggestions, anyone?).

An even wider variety of costumes and music was presented here - everything from Greek to Dungan to Korean to Jewish.... of course many of these performances weren't "traditional" according to the strict definition of the word. But the priority for these types of events isn't authenticity, but representation. One could argue, though, that this representation is kind of superfluous if these cultural groups only appear once a year...!

The third event that highlighted KZ-style multiculturalism was a dance concert sponsored by the Indian consulate (as well as two different tea companies). Not only Indian classical dance, but Kazakh "national" dance as well as Korean and Chinese martial arts were featured on the program. Each group performed separately at first, but in contrast to the separateness of the other concerts, towards the end the Kazakh dancers and Indian barata natyam dancers shared the stage and danced together. Then the last number of the dance program brought all the different performing groups together in a big, choreographed group finale.

The music for the finale was provided by a very famous Kazakh pop-traditional musician, Edil Husseinov, who does this interesting, neo-shamanistic act (costume, throat singing, traditional Kazakh instruments, etc.). I will admit that I rolled my eyes a couple of times due to the slight "It's a Small World After All" cheese-factor of the finale; but I could also appreciate the statement being made about honoring diversity and bringing lots of different kinds of people and traditions together. And I should point out, the house was PACKED for this concert, which is rarely true for other types of events (including Kazakh traditional and Western classical music).

So, what to make of all these displays of multiculturalism? To be honest, for me they sometimes inspire flashbacks to college campus "Diversity Days" where people would dress up, put on a concert, try some different kinds of food, and then go back to real life the next day. That's basically how it works here, too, but I guess it could be a lot worse - at least there are such things here, where people can see and appreciate the diversity that is here in Kazakhstan. It's just too bad it only comes around once a year...!